Goodbye to the gods of the gramophone

- Maestros, Masterpieces and Madness

May 25, 2007

In 2003, Norman Lebrecht, self-styled prophet of doom of the classical music industry, announced that by the end of the year the classical recording industry would be dead. First came the announcement, now here is the book.

It is divided into two parts: a rapid canter through the history of recording - its rise, its brief years of glory and its dramatic collapse - and annotated lists of great and rather less great recordings.

Stylistically, Maestros, Masterpieces and Madness has a breathy, tabloidesque quality. Lebrecht tends to sum up his characters according to dress and sexual inclination. For instance, Claudio Abbado is "intellectually and sexually charismatic", while Bernard Haitink is dismissed as "a tetchy, graceless man".

Lebrecht also injects immediacy by conjuring up scenes of high drama - melodrama even - such as Leonard Bernstein "head in hands, weeping" and the elusive and great conductor Carlos Kleiber at the grave of Herbert von Karajan at midnight, saying: "I had to come. He was the one I admired most."

It's a style that can make for a punchy column (many of the arguments here will be familiar to readers of London's Evening Standard and, prior to that, The Daily Telegraph), but in a book it quickly becomes tiring.

Lebrecht peppers the text with metaphors (sometimes mixed) such as "the gods of the gramophone were shown to be made of tinfoil and tossed aside, like crumpled tissues"; cliched similes such as "despondency fell like a winter fog"; and hyperbole such as "there is more sex in one of (Lotte Lenya's) demisemiquavers than in the collected works of Madonna". It quickly becomes wearing, as does the fact that the text is presented without a single accent, and without italicising names of works.

Leaving stylistic considerations aside, however, there are two main criticisms. The first is the condescending tone adopted by Lebrecht. The second is the way he consistently presents opinion as if it were hard fact.

While he traces the changing status of the big players, such as Decca, Deutsche Grammophon, Philips, CBS/Sony, BMG and EMI, he fails to examine the concomitant rise in influence of the many smaller companies, mentioning just a couple of these in passing.

The only exception to this is Naxos, which has made a virtue of creating an enormous catalogue of budget-priced recordings, made very cheaply. Its owner, Klaus Heymann, is one of the few figures for whom Lebrecht seems to have genuine respect. Among artists, only the conductor Giuseppe Sinopoli escapes entirely unscathed.

The decline-and-fall narrative is complemented by two extensive annotated lists. Writer and marketing department should have conferred more closely: on the cover sticker they are described as "the 100 best records ever made and the 20 worst", whereas inside Lebrecht prefers the 100 "most important"

and "20 recordings that should never have been made", averring that "it is inadvisable ever to apply value judgments to works of art". He then goes on to do precisely that, particularly in the case of the second list.

Among the stranger inclusions here are a classic interpretation of Schubert's Winterreise by Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten, and Gidon Kremer's searing account of Beethoven's Violin Concerto, discounted by Lebrecht on the basis of its modern cadenza. The first list is a mixture of the obvious and the bizarre and, like the rest of the book, it is best taken with a large pinch of salt.

This is a book to be regarded as a bitchy and pacy polemic rather than a serious work of analysis, for Lebrecht overlooks one major point - the classical recording industry is anything but dead.

Maestros, Masterpieces and Madness: the Secret Life and Shameful Death of the Classical Record Industry

Author - Norman Lebrecht
Publisher - Allen Lane
Pages - 324
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 9780713999570

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